The long overdue decision of the Biden administration to lift restrictions on travellers from Europe will come as a relief to airlines, European governments and, most of all, the many people who have been separated from their families for more than a year because of the ban.
Introduced by then US president Donald Trump in March 2020, as Covid-19 was spreading across Europe, the restrictions have meant many Irish citizens in the United States have been unable to return home because of uncertainty over whether they would be readmitted to the US.
That was because people without US citizenship, green cards or specific exemptions were prevented from entering the US if they had been in Ireland, the UK or the Schengen area in the previous 14 days. Travellers who had been in China, India, Iran, South Africa or Brazil were similarly affected. The rules are to be eased from November, meaning many families can be reunited at Christmas if not before.
Jeff Zients, the White House pandemic coordinator, said the decision was based on public health guidance and enabled by the development of “a new international air travel system” that makes flying safer. But that system – based on vaccine certification, a test requirement and contact tracing – is no different to similar arrangements used in the rest of the world for many months.
In fact the decision had as much to do with politics as anything else. Notwithstanding persistently high case numbers in many parts of the US, the potential domestic downside of the decision for President Joe Biden is smaller now than it was when the health crisis was dominating the political agenda there.
The EU and UK were dismayed when Washington failed to reciprocate their decisions to allow entry to vaccinated people from the US, and the point of tension was likely to arise again during the visit by British prime minister Boris Johnson to Washington this week. French and wider European anger in recent days over the new US-Australia security pact gave Biden an urgent reason to seek to placate his allies across the Atlantic.